A book by Delores Kennedy, written after many years of research brought attention to the case of the "Lipstick Killer".
This tag was completely invented by a Chicago newspaper reporter. A cry for help was scrawled in lipstick on a brick wall, photographed and attributed to him. So gruesome were the murders and hysterical the public reaction that William Heirens, at 17, bargained his knowledge he was innocence for his life.
Bill Kurtis' Investigative Report has done an hour show on this "Lipstick Killer" case which everyone should see. It leaves no doubt about the power of the press to do harm. See Shannon Murrin where 50 years after Heirens the media conspired with a bad cop and a lazy prosecutor to smear an innocent man; a view contested by the victim's website.
A Chicago man who confessed to one of the most shocking slayings in the city's history and paid for it with more years of his life than any Illinois state prison inmate has died.
According to the Cook County Medical Examiner's office, 83-year-old William Heirens died at a Chicago hospital after officials at Dixon Correctional Center found him unresponsive in his cell. The office said that an autopsy was scheduled.
Heirens was a 17-year-old University of Chicago student and petty burglar when he confessed to killing two women in 1945 - one was shot and stabbed, the other stabbed - and the abduction, slaying and dismemberment of a 6-year-old girl the next year.
The crimes sent chills through city residents. Investigators found a message scrawled on a mirror with lipstick at one of the women's homes that read: "For heaven's sake, catch me before I kill more. I cannot control myself". That note earned Heirens the moniker "Lipstick Killer".
“For heaven's sake, catch me before I kill more”
But it was the slaying of 6-year-old Suzanne Degnan that terrified the city most of all.
Suzanne was abducted from her home on the first day of school after Christmas vacation by an intruder who used a ladder to climb into her bedroom. The girl was strangled then taken to the basement of a nearby building and dismembered. Pieces of her body were found in sewers and catch basins near her home on the city's North Side.
Heirens was arrested in June 1946 at the scene of a burglary in the same neighborhood. Police charged him with murder after determining that his fingerprints were on a $20,000 ransom note that had been left behind at the girl's home.
After confessing to the slayings, Heirens was sentenced to three consecutive terms of natural life with the possibility of parole.
In the ensuing decades, Heirens sought release from prison some 30 times, claiming that he was innocent and that he only gave a 19-page confession after police sedated him. His attorney subsequently struck a deal in which Heirens confessed to avoid the death penalty.
At the same time, he became the first Illinois inmate to receive a 4-year college degree while in prison.
In 2002, The Associated Press reported that students and law professors at Northwestern University who had worked to free other inmates had taken up his case. A clemency petition submitted to then Gov. George Ryan claimed Heirens was given a spinal tap without anesthetic in one instance. One of the attorneys who prepared the clemency petition, Steven Drizin, said it also argued that police acknowledged that they gave Heirens sodium pentathol, a so-called truth serum, and that after that injection he made some admissions.
Attorneys also argued that the case was tainted by questionable evidence, incompetent defense counsel and prejudicial pre-trial publicity.
The petition was denied, Drizin said.
In the years after his petition for clemency was denied, Heirens continued to seek his release. The elderly man who used a wheelchair to get around the hospital wing of the prison argued that because of his age and failing health he no longer posed a threat to society.
That argument did not work.
"God will forgive you," said Thomas Johnson, a member of the Prisoner Review Board, said at his 2007 parole hearing. "But the state won't."
A man who has spent 56 years in jail in what his lawyers describe as "one of the grossest miscarriages of justice in the history of the US" could finally be freed. A new investigation into the case of the man known as the Lipstick Killer indicates that the evidence against him was fabricated by detectives.
William Heirens was a 17-year-old University of Chicago student when he confessed to three murders, one of them that of a six-year-old child. He was injected with a "truth serum" and given a spinal tap after which he confessed in a plea bargain that would spare him a death sentence. His confession was published in the Chicago Tribune before he had actually made it.
His case has been taken up by the Northwestern Law Center on Wrongful Convictions which has a high success rate in having suspect verdicts overturned.
Josephine Ross, a housewife, was stabbed to death in her apartment in 1945. Later that year, Frances Brown was shot dead and the words "For heaven's sake, catch me before I kill more - I cannot control myself" were found written in lipstick on her wall. Then the child, Suzanne Degnan, was kidnapped, strangled and dismembered. A ransom note demanding money for her was found. There was enormous pressure on the police to solve the case.
The new investigation indicates that neither the ransom note nor the lipstick confession were written by Heirens. A fingerprint found in Brown's apartment is alleged to have been placed there by police.
Born in 1929 and raised in the Chicago suburbs, William Heirens turned towards a life of crime at an early age. He enjoyed creeping through houses and burglarizing them, logging his first arrest at the age of only thirteen for carrying a loaded gun. He admitted to a string of petty burglaries and was sent to a school for wayward boys for several months. He was soon arrested again at a hotel and was sent to St. Bede's academy in Peru, Illinois for three years. Heirens impressed the staff there enough that they pushed to allow him to enter the University of Chicago at the age of only sixteen.
William Heirens continued his burglaries throughout his time in Peru and the year at University of Chicago. During this period he also began his infamous killings on June 5, 1945, when he entered the north side apartment of Josephine A. Ross, which she shared with her two daughters. The 43-year-old Ross was sleeping late that morning and awoke to find Heirens rifling through her things. The young burglar reacted by viciously slashing her throat and then wrapping the bloody wound in a dress. Blood-soaked items of Ross' clothing were found in the bath tub and the bedroom was sprayed with droplets of blood from the savage attack. One of Ross' daughters narrowly avoided the same fate, arriving just moments afterward and finding her mother's corpse. The daughter had passed Heirens as he exited the building.
Next came Frances Brown, left alone in her home when her housemate left overnight on December 10, 1945. A man had asked the deskclerk if Brown was home during that day but left when told she was not in. The next morning her body was discovered by a maid when she found Brown's door open and music blaring. Brown had been shot twice in the head and stabbed with a butcher knife, which was left protruding from her corpse. Heirens had dragged her into the bathtub and wrapped her head with towels. Then he left his infamous message on a mirror. Written in lipstick it read, "For Heaven's Sake catch me before I kill more. I cannot control myself." The cryptic scrawling is what Heirens is most remembered for to this day.
But William Heirens most disturing murder was certainly his next, and last, murder. He broke into the apartment of Jim and Helen Degnan on January 6, 1946. During that night Mrs. Degnan thought she had heard her six-year-old daughter Suzanne cry out and an upstairs neighbor had heard the child speaking to someone around 1:00 AM. When the family awoke the next morning their child was gone. A ransom note was soon found on the girl's bedroom floor demanding $20,000 in cash for the child's safe return and warning that no police were to be involved.
Heirens had no intention of returning the girl safely. Instead he took her to a secluded place and killed her then dissected her body and dumped it piece by piece through nearby sewer gratings. Witnesses recall seeing a man matching Heirens descriptions strolling about the area in the early morning of January 7 carrying a small shopping bag. Two police detectives driving on Winthrop Avenue on that very evening discovered Suzanne's head after noticing a displace sewer grate. Before the night was out her torso and legs were also found in other nearby sewers. Her arms were not found until a few weeks later. Blood and tissue were discovered in a basement bathtub in a close by apartment house.
A manhunt was quickly launched for the unknown slayer but it was not until June 26 that Heirens was apprehended prowling a North Side apartment house. After a struggle, during which Heirens attempted to shoot at the detective leading the inquiry into the Degnan murder, he was arrested and taken in for questioning. Given a truth serum (which Heirens had reportedly previously injected himself with in order to build an immunity to it) the youthful killer confessed to the three homocides. Heirens was sentenced to three consecutive life terms withough the possibility of parole.
A rather large movement has gained some steam over the years, claiming that Heirens is innocent of the three murders. Indeed handwriting experts have cast some doubt on the lipstick and ransom messages attributed to Heirens. Some say those were planted by overzealous police or newspaper reporters. Heirens does, however, display continuing signs of sociopathic behavior and was a very serious collecter of stolen women's undergarments judging by the large stash found after one of his previous arrests. His fingerprints were also present at all three crime scenes so it does appear that these attmepts to clear Heirens name are doomed to failure.